As lawmakers gird up their loins for what likely will be another contentious round of fiscal deliberations in Washington, a government-watchdog group has issued a report asserting that further cuts to OSHA's budget would be a bruising body blow to workplace safety.
As it stands now, OSHA is badly underfunded and lacks the resources it needs to fulfill its mission of protecting workers, the Center for Effective Government asserts in the report, "What's at Stake: Austerity Budgets Threaten Worker Health and Safety."
"OSHA exists to ensure that we're all safe on the job," said Nick Schwellenbach, senior fiscal policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government and author of the report.
"While OSHA is trying to mitigate the immediate impacts of budget cuts, Washington's continuing obsession with deficits will cause OSHA to be less effective in protecting workers."
The government-watchdog group – formerly known as OMB Watch – admitted that OSHA has been spared the deep cuts that other agencies have had to endure. However, even before sequestration, OSHA's resources had not kept pace with the growth of the economy, the group said.
"OSHA had fewer health and safety compliance inspections staff in 2011 than in 1981 – the first year of the Reagan administration – even though the number of workplaces doubled to 9 million from 4.5 million establishments, and the number of workers rose to 129.4 million from 73.4 million," the report says.
Each OSHA inspector is responsible for overseeing the health and safety of 62,000 workers and 4,300 workplaces, according to the report.
The report notes that President Obama's proposed FY 2014 budget forecasts a 4 percent drop in OSHA inspections from 2013 levels.
Already Feeling the Impact
Although OSHA "is trying to protect its most essential functions," the agency already has taken a hit from sequestration cuts, the report explains.
"Many of the impacts of the budget cuts in FY 2013 were related to training, outreach and travel associated with those efforts," the report says.
"A year of skimping on training is manageable, but a longer period of inadequate professional development will have more serious consequences. Similarly, reductions in outreach efforts will have more serious effects over a longer period of time."
More cuts to OSHA's budget would hit the agency at a particularly vulnerable time, because the cuts likely would take a bite out of OSHA's spending on new-inspector training, the report asserts.
"This would come at a time when OSHA is projected to lose a significant percentage of its existing workforce as safety and health inspectors and whistleblower investigators reach retirement age," the report says.
More budget cuts also would make it harder for OSHA to investigate retaliation against workers who report health and safety violations.
"Federal OSHA and its state counterparts have too few resources to regularly inspect all worksites and rely on worker complaints to identify the most dangerous establishments," the report laments.
"Charges of retaliation are increasing, and OSHA no longer completes its investigations within the statutory deadline of 90 days. In 2012, each OSHA investigator was handling about 26 cases, and each took up to 286 days to close. This problem would likely get worse with additional funding cuts."
The government-watchdog group also worries that further cuts would trickle down to state enforcement and compliance programs, "which federal OSHA has traditionally funded at about 50 percent of total costs."
"OSHA performs a valuable service in safeguarding Americans at work," Schwellenbach said.
"However, the agency is stretched too thin. If we're going to prevent debilitating accidents and tragic deaths on the job, Congress and the president need to commit to giving OSHA the resources to protect our health and safety."